Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Pentagon Holds Thousands of Americans 'Prisoners of War'

Pentagon Holds Thousands of Americans 'Prisoners of War'

By Penny Coleman
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Sgt. Kristofer Shawn Goldsmith was one of the many soldiers and Marines, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, who gave testimony at last weekend's Winter Soldier investigation. They spoke from personal experience about what the American military is doing in those countries. They gave examples of what they had done, what they had been ordered to do, what they had witnessed, how their experiences had wounded them, both physically and psychically, and what kind of care and support they have, or most often have not gotten since coming home. The panel Goldsmith was on was called "The Breakdown of the U.S. Military," so he surprised the audience when he said that he was going to talk about prisoners of war.

He was not, however, going to talk about the three soldiers listed as missing in action on the Department of Defense website. He was referring to those who have been the victims of stop-loss, the device by which the president can, "in the event of war," choose to extend an enlistee's contract "until six months after the war ends." The "War on Terror" is this president's excuse for invoking that clause. Because that war will, by definition, continue as long as we insist that there is a difference between the terror inflicted on our innocents and the terror inflicted on theirs, American soldiers are effectively signing away their freedom indefinitely when they join the military. They are prisoners of an ill-defined and undeclared war on a tactic -- terrorism -- that dates back to Biblical times and will be with us indefinitely.

According to U.S. News and World Report, there are at least 60,000 of them.

"I was a great soldier once upon a time," Goldsmith says. He graduated at the top of his class in basic training and was on the commandant's list in the Warrior Leadership Course with a 94.6 percent average. He aced every test, mental and physical, received commendations and medals and promotions, but by the end of his first deployment he knew he was in serious trouble. His CSM (command sergeant major) Altman, however, had told his battalion, "If any of you go try to say you're depressed and thinking about killing yourself, you're going to get deployed anyway, and when we get there, you'll get to be my personal I.E.D. (improvised explosive device) kicker!" So he self-medicated; he drank. A lot. "All I wanted to do was black out."

What kept him going was the end that was in sight. He just had to hang on till his contract was up, and then he could go home, go back to school, and finally be a 20-year-old kid. Then days before he was scheduled to get out, his unit was locked down, stop-lossed as part of the surge. He was looking at another 18-month deployment.

At first he thought he was having a heart attack. It turned out to be a panic attack. He was diagnosed with depression, anxiety disorder and adjustment disorder, given a lot of pills and told he'd be fine. Or at least fine enough to go back.

The day before his unit was to deploy, Memorial Day 2007, he went out onto the memorial field at Ft. Stewart, where trees are planted for every soldier from 3rd Infantry Division killed in Iraq. He mixed pills and vodka, and tried to die.

He woke up handcuffed to a gurney and spent a week in a mental ward. His commanding officer tried to rip off his stripes and threatened to prosecute him for malingering, a court martial offense: He had tried to kill a U.S. Army soldier. Ultimately, he was given two Article 15s (nonjudicial punishment), one for malingering and one for missing movement (not deploying on time) and separated from the service with a general discharge stamped in big letters: "misconduct: serious offense." Under a general discharge, he lost all his educational benefits.

Sgt. Goldsmith's story is not necessarily more devastating than others I heard over the course of the four-day gathering. There were many that were told with equal courage and clarity, and that were equally revealing of important issues. But at some point as I listened to him speak, I realized that I was no longer listening as a journalist, I was listening as a mother. In 1971, the original Winter Soldiers were my age. This new generation are my children's. And this young soldier framed everything he had to say with a mother's worst nightmare: the death of a child.

The first picture Goldsmith showed was of a 10-year-old boy in "cammies," with dog tags on a chain around his neck, proudly offering his best boy scout salute. "That boy died in Iraq, " he says.

Another picture flashed on the screen, this time of a young soldier in real military camouflage, leaning out of a jeep and flashing a shit-eating boyish grin. It was a good day, the first day of his deployment to Iraq in 2005. That boy, too, Goldsmith told us, is dead.

Three years after that picture was taken, Sgt. Goldsmith doesn't look any older. In fact, sitting on the speakers' platform between two big Marines, he almost looks fragile. Even the Mohawk haircut doesn't come off as particularly tough. He may be fragile, but there is nothing, absolutely nothing fragile about what he has to say. Or the way he says it.

Goldsmith is from Bellmore, Long Island. On Sept. 11, 2001, he could see the smoke from the towers from his home. Like many Americans, he wanted to join the military to protect his country. He signed on as a forward observer, perhaps the most dangerous position on the battlefield.

In Iraq, he was stationed in Sadr City, one of the poorest and angriest of Baghdad's neighborhoods. Electricity was available for only 2-4 hours a day, sewage contaminated the water system, and the outside temperature often topped 130 degrees. American soldiers were charged with enforcing a curfew that kept locals locked inside their homes, away from the coffee shops or the rooftops or their neighbors' yards, for the only cool hours of the day.

Essentially rendering 3.2 million Iraqis prisoners of war. Goldsmith was among the prisoners guarding other prisoners.

Among the stories Goldsmith told was one about a little boy on a rooftop with a stick, pretending it was an AK47. He was yelling down at the Americans, angry, acting tough and posturing defiantly. Goldsmith trained his weapon on the kid and almost fired. Something made him stop, but when he told the story last weekend, you could hear the disbelief in his voice: "I almost took out a 6-year-old boy. I almost killed someone's son."

When a mass grave was discovered, he was ordered to take pictures of the dead. One after another, horrific images of death in partial decay went up on the screen. "Every one of these pictures is burned into my mind," he says. "I could draw them." And he remembers the flies. The flies had no particular preference for the living or the dead. They were "landing on the corpses ... And then they would land on my lips. They would land on my eyes. They would crawl up my nose. And I felt so violated and emotionally raped." It did not help to know that those images, ostensibly for identification purposes, were never shared with Iraqis hoping to find a missing loved one. They were trophies for a few armchair warriors who used them to "boost morale," to prove that Americans were really kicking haji butt. But for Goldsmith, the horror is indelible. It will never go away.

When they wanted him to go back for more, he despaired and tried to kill the 21-year-old he had become. Nothing made sense anymore.

I find it so painfully ironic that as other excuses for the war have been proven false, (weapons of mass destruction, U.N. sanctions, ties to Al-Queda, etc.) the administration has fallen back on the most unbelievable of all: freedom. While George Bush insists that Iraqis accept freedom, American style, one out of every 100 of our own citizens are in prison. Almost twice as many as the runner-up, China. Iraq is 62 on the list, though it is unclear whether that includes those being held by Americans. In this country, there are 2,258,983 in prison. That figure does not include the 723,000 locked up in local jails. Or the 60,000 stop-lossed soldiers.

Pentagon studies have shown that each deployment leaves a soldier 60 percent more likely to suffer serious mental health problems. In support of that, as this president sends soldiers back into combat as many as five times in as many years, the U.S. Army Medical Command Suicide Prevention Action Plan acknowledges that suicides among active-duty soldiers in 2007 were up 20 percent from 2006, their highest level since the Army began keeping such records in 1980. And the number of suicide attempts has increased sixfold since the Iraq war began. There were several in the I-30 Infantry Battalion, and Goldsmith holds his sergeant major responsible. Like Goldsmith, these young soldiers are being told not only that they are prisoners, but that they are disposable. They are our children, and their deaths are on the hands of those who hold their freedom hostage.

Congress could put an end to this.

Penny Coleman is the widow of a Vietnam veteran who took his own life after coming home. Her latest book, Flashback: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide and the Lessons of War, was released on Memorial Day, 2006. Her website is Flashback.

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